If Judy Blume was the architect of my pre-teen, book-a-day reading habit, Linda Schuyler was the inspiration behind my teen television obsession. As the co-creator and executive producer of The Kids of Degrassi Street, Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, Schuyler showed the teenaged me that television characters needn’t all be as glossy as the ones on Beverly Hills 90210. The kids in her shows lived and breathed and had pimples and bad hair days and were sometimes painfully awkward.
It’s no wonder that I – as well as fellow PopGurl Amy – became equally enamored of Degrassi: The Next Generation when it began airing on cable network The N. Schuyler had once again worked her magic, with some of the same characters/actors nonetheless, and we were helpless against its call.
In 2005, Schuyler and producer husband Steven Stohn, also a Degrassi vet, set their sights on the world of pop stardom. The resulting series, Instant Star, is so good that I’ve saved every single episode of its two seasons on my DVR, so that I can introduce unsuspecting friends to its awesomeness. With Season Three of Instant Star fast approaching, I was able to chat with Schuyler via phone – and managed to not sound too much like an awestruck fan. I think.
Wow! Big Degrassi: The Next Generation episode last night in Canada. You killed JT! That’s huge!
(laughs) You’re right. It’s a huge story about gang violence. Useless gang violence.
In your role, how much day-to-day involvement do you have with Degrassi: The Next Generation and Instant Star?
A lot. I don’t write episodes, but I have two great writing teams and I work with them closely. In fact, the biggest amount of my time is spent with the writers, and I’m always there when they break stories with the cast for the first time.
Do you influence the major storylines?
Absolutely. That’s the biggest part of my involvement, developing the big picture, what storylines we want to follow, what issues we want to cover, what will happen with characters.
More than almost any other programming in recent memory, Degrassi and Instant Star seem to encourage creative expression from their fans – whether it’s fanfiction or songwriting or diary keeping, etc. What are some fan-created projects you’ve seen that inspired you?
Of course we’re interested in everything the fans do. It’s lovely to know the young audience is as engaged as they are. This year we did an interesting thing for our [Degrassi] minis. We went out to schools in Canada and gave them a toolkit for what it would take to write a mini for Degrassi. We got so many great submissions from around the country, and we actually produced the script from the winning entry.
Again, speaking specifically about Degrassi and Instant Star, are there story arcs that didn’t turn out the way you originally imagined them? Is there a storyline you brought from the older Degrassi series, with the hopes of getting having a more satisfactory outcome the second time around?
I wouldn’t say more satisfactory. I think we’ve taken storylines and given them a different twist. If you look at both the original [Degrassi] series and the new one, we’ve had so many twists on teen pregnancy! Whether it’s the experience of going full term, having an abortion, keeping the baby, putting it up for adoption, having a false alarm… We’ve transported stories from the old series and we’ve explored them with new characters in a different time. It automatically becomes a new issue. I can honestly say that I don’t feel like we’ve repeated ourselves.
Season Three of Instant Star is coming up. If Season One was about Jude learning to balance family and friends with her new place in the industry, and Season Two was about Jude learning to never take anything for granted, what big lesson will Jude learn in Season Three?
In Season Three, she’s become more famous than she ever was before. It will still always be a big juggle with her as to how to remain being a normal girl, while having the fame she has. She’s also going to turn 18, and it’s a big deal for her. In her mind, she feels she has become an adult. She feels this means she can go full-heartedly into her relationship with Tommy, though she’ll find out that there were things other than age getting in the way. She will not be a kid who’s becoming a rock star, she’s an adult who is a rock star.
Well, that answers my Jude and Tommy question!
(laughs) And what was that?
Now that Jude is turning 18, what will happen with her and Tommy?
In Jude’s mind, turning 18 means that she and Tommy can launch full-steam into a relationship. But there are other impediments in Tommy’s life, aside from the age thing, that is stopping them from moving forward. The age difference was a just a convenience for him.
I’ve read a lot about the Season Three webisodes that are being filmed for Instant Star. Will these episodes flesh out some of the secondary characters more, like the way Battlestar Galactica has done them, or will they advance the main storylines?
Actually, in our webisodes we’re using the main characters. That format allows us to have a lot of fun with them. We’re able to do some things we wouldn’t normally be able to, like explore what would happen if certain characters traded places. As a consequence the episodes are more whimsical, have a lighter touch, and the cast adores shooting them.
Sounds like they’re a bit goofy, more lighthearted, less message-y.
Well, some of them have a message, but they are definitely more lighthearted than a typical episode
What sets the new Instant Star winner, Karma, apart from Jude and Mason?
Jude has always been reluctant with the commercial side of the recording industry. She sees herself as a songwriter who sings her own songs, and she’s always getting caught between the commercial side – the label – and her desire to do her own thing. The new Instant Star bursts on the scene and she has no such principals, no morals. She’s like, ‘bring it ON. You want me to do that? I’ll totally do that!’ Jude is appalled at her behavior.
And Season Two winner Mason was even more low-key about winning than Jude!
Mason was a gosh-golly-gee-whiz kid who couldn’t believe he won the thing. He so looked up to Jude and loved her very much.
Will we see much of him in Season Three?
I think he’ll be around very little. [Nicholas Rose, who plays Mason] was very cute and very lovely. And just because he’s not around so much in Season Three, doesn’t mean we won’t hear from him more in the future.
Will there be a soundtrack for Instant Star Season Three?
Oh, yes. We’re working out the details now. One of the things that was developed along with the series was the music, every episode has an original song, and we’re very proud of that. We actually hold two music camps a season, where we bring the writers of the show together with the songwriters, to discuss which themes and situations we want to deal with. The songwriters go away and we meet back in a week. We have a party at our house to see what they’ve done. In the beginning, the scriptwriters inform the songs, and then when the songwriters come back they help inform the scripts. It’s a great opportunity for the songwriters, because they know that if a song makes it into the episode, it has a good chance of being produced on the soundtrack.
You’ve won a host of awards for your programs over the years. Which one means the most?
Interestingly enough, it’s not the awards that do it for me – it’s the tons of response we get from our fans, either in e-mail or good old-fashioned snail mail. I call them the “Dear Degrassi” letters. People say, ‘you have no idea how much this episode helped me, I used to be a cutter and your cutting episode helped me deal with it’ or ‘ it took me so long to come out and I saw the episode with Marco and it helped me come out.’ These genuine heartfelt messages from fans are much more rewarding than a piece of hardware.
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